Substance & Substitute

Why I may soon give up Zoom poetry readings.

Substance & Substitute

Simulacra is a word I overuse, mostly when I want to sound smart, glib, and exasperated all at once. I love the sound of words the way a beignet loves its own messy powder of sugar, so I suspect my attachment to certain words is born of a sincere delight, but who knows?

Simulacra is a muscular word, a flexible word — its sibilance careening somewhat carelessly into all those vowels — that, when spoken, almost sounds like an incantation.

Hallelujah has this quality of spell-making, as well. I return to it despite its denotation as an unsatisfactory substitute. I can think of no other word more apt to describe the experience of doing Zoom poetry readings, Zoom presentations, Zoom book launches, and Zoom panels.

Lately, I’ve been avoiding the word a bit, wrestling with my unresolved feelings about having a book published last October. Don’t get me wrong: The Understudy’s Handbook, my debut book of poems, published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House, has received support, love, and a few generous reviews, which is much more than some poets receive.

I am grateful in a way that I’ve trained myself to be grateful. After all, didn’t this fulfill a professional dream? Didn’t this help my tenure portfolio immensely? Aren’t these Zoom readings a result of that accomplishment?

All true.

And yet, I still feel the sadness of not being with others to celebrate, not going on tour, not selling as many books as I thought I would. Money and experiences left on the table. What else is there to do but be grateful, given a global pandemic, an unconscionable amount of death, and an open fire hydrant of misinformation?

The literary world zooms along at a pace akin to a peregrine falcon. When it’s award season, there is a speedy diving down, a race to consume, a moment to sit in pleasure, but then back to the flight.

In many ways, I’ve struggled with the thought of being left behind by my peers. Late to poetry because of years wanting to be an actor. Late to a first book because of years of rejection. Late to the printer because of covid disruptions. I thought I’d have my proverbial moment in the sun and all of that unease would dissipate.

I did, and it didn’t.

But the life of a book is like the life of your child. You may have the most expansive dreams, plans upon plans, but in the end, the process of that kid maturing involves letting go, loosening control, letting a life take shape.

Somehow, though, the feeling of loss is intensified by reading poems aloud into the square abyss of Zoom windows. For emerging writers, I can’t overstate the value of being good at retail politics. The thoughtful responses to a Q&A, the sincere interest in other people’s interest in your art, the flourish of signing a book: All of these in-person experiences are like bitcoin — highly valuable and hard to counterfeit.

I am left wondering if the simulacra of video, the value of “seeing” the face of the author, was worth it. Would really well-produced podcasts have been better? The voice centered and lifted up instead of relegated to real-time interactions that still feel distant. What if I’d sought out radio venues instead of virtual rooms?

I am astonished how much I don’t go back to those Zoom recordings to re-watch them. In contrast, I often return to shows like “The Poet and the Poem,” hosted by Grace Cavalieri. Why does one feel like a substitute and the other more permanent? I guess it comes down to production and editing. A live Zoom broadcast is a difficult show to pull off. 

Steven Leyva’s new poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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